A school van ran into an express train in Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar on April 26, leaving 13 children dead and their families bereft. Every year, scores of schoolchildren are killed in road accidents on their way to school.

Two weeks ago, 30 people, including 27 schoolchildren, were killed in Himachal Pradesh when the bus ferrying them home drove off a mountain road. The same day as the Kushinagar accident, a seven-year-old schoolgirl in Delhi was killed and several of her companions seriously injured when their van crashed into a truck.

Such incidents are unexceptional, with reports of similar accidents from every part of the country.

India has among the highest incidence of fatalities linked to road accidents. Poor driving skills, non-observance of road rules, bad road conditions, low-safety vehicles, overcrowding, drunk driving are all factors. According to data, an average of 45 children under the age of 18 are killed in road accidents every day. There is no information about how many of these accidents involve school transport.

What this data also does not tell us is whether the incidence of child fatalities in road accidents is linked to the changing ways in which children go to school.

Schoolchildren crammed like sardines into small vans or autorickshaws, their bags piled on roof-racks or hung from the sides, is an everyday sight in India. It was not always so. Especially not in small towns or rural areas like Dudahi, where the 13 children were killed.

Even before the Right to Education Act of 2009 mandated that all children must be served by a neighbourhood primary school, most children walked to primary school – the first small steps towards being independent, adventurous and responsible for themselves. For some children, getting to school was a daily feat. There are still places in India, albeit very few, where children have to ford a river or climb down steep mountains to get to school. The Right to Education norm of a school within a one-kilometre radius was meant to ensure universal access, based on the understanding that it was the distance a small child could walk unescorted.

The growth in the use of motorised transport to get to school, particularly primary school, is linked to the growth in private school enrolment and, to a lesser extent, admissions to selective state schools. In rural areas with competition among private schools, transport is often offered as an incentive to draw in students from relatively far afield.

Mishrauli, the village in Kushinagar whose gram pradhan lost her three children in Thursday’s accident, has a government primary school. The private school her children attended, Divine Mission School in Dudahi, is perhaps just a couple of kilometers away. But the seven-seater vehicle that was their “school bus” collected 17 children from surrounding villages, which would have made their journey to school rather longer than it should have been.

There are no large-scale studies of how children in India travel to school. But one study in Hyderabad found that while most children (57%) still walked to school, a larger share of those in private schools (41%) used motorised transport as compared to those in government schools (24%).

'Government policy now effectively supports children being driven to distant schools in overcrowded vehicles instead of them just walking to a neighbourhood school with their siblings and friends.' Photo credit: Anjali Mody

Flouting norms

From time to time, following wide media coverage of fatal accidents such as the one in Kushinagar, the Supreme Court, state governments or school boards have issued safety guidelines for school transport. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has also published a manual on safety and security of schoolchildren which has a section on safe transport. But these guidelines are observed more in the breach.

With the exception perhaps of those that serve a socially powerful and well-heeled constituency, schools in India are unconcerned about the risks their students take everyday. Most schools that provide transport are looking at pricing; schools that do not provide transport, including the central government-run Kendriya Vidyalayas, maintain that it is the parents’ responsibility.

In cases like Kushinagar and Delhi, it is easy to point fingers at the government, police and civil administration for the lack of regulation and for failing to act against obvious violations – unregulated private schools, illegal licence mafias, overcrowded vehicles on roads, dangerous drivers. But the question that always goes unasked in the wake of devastating tragedy is, “What about parents?” Why do parents, when they make choices about schools for their children, not factor in basic safety?

In Delhi, parents rather improbably claimed not to have known that the van carried more than double the number it was designed for. The driver had a litany of prior complaints against him and had been fined for various traffic violations. He took a route – which included driving on the wrong side of the road – that the police said many in the neighbourhood took. Parents admitting that they knew any of this would mean they shared responsibility for what happened.

The tragic irony of these deaths is that the children were travelling to what their parents considered better schools than those in their neighbourhood. The question that must be asked is, what is this education that starts with ignoring sensible regulations and breaking the law?

In all the talk of education reform and scalable good practices, the one important question that has been ignored is how children get to school. The Right to Education neighbourhood school norm, which effectively linked a community to its primary school, was an ideal worth fighting for. But by the time it came along in 2010, the trend in favour of private schools was already set, ironically aided by the Right to Education Act, which stipulates that 25% seats in private school should go to “economically weaker sections” and be paid for by the government.

Governments in many states as also the central government are looking to rationalise public education by closing down schools with low enrolment and providing transport or a transport allowance to get children to schools further away. Government policy now effectively supports children being driven to distant schools in overcrowded buses, vans, autorickshaws and “jugaads”, instead of them just walking to a neighbourhood school with their siblings and friends.